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The Orlando Pride earned their first win of the regular season on Saturday, beating the Courage 2-1 on the road in North Carolina. Here are three things learned from the match:
McLeod steps up as starter
Keeper Erin McLeod waited over a year to make her debut for the Pride after signing ahead of the 2020 season.
The keeper was a previous starter for the Canadian national team, and her inclusion in the 2021 Canadian allocated list elevated McLeod from a Pride backup to the second national-team goalkeeper on the roster.
Coach Marc Skinner chose to play McLeod against North Carolina instead of captain Ashlyn Harris to offer the keeper necessary playing time as the Pride approached a three-game week.
The keeper’s first match for the Pride brought much-needed consistency against an offensively stacked North Carolina team, recording four saves.
McLeod’s only mistake of the game also created one of her top highlights of the second half — she bobbled a leaping save of a shot by Lynn Williams, only to leap off the ground from her stomach to swat the ball off frame before Jessica McDonald could come crashing in to clean it up for a goal.
Her success showcased the depth the Pride will bring at the goalkeeper position throughout this season.
“It’s the beauty of having experienced players and a wonderful goalkeeping unit,” Skinner said. “For me, what she’s done tonight was just exactly what we expected. And I think that’s a really nice place to be.”
Playing direct pays off
Coach Skinner has adapted his team’s style of play since 2019, and Courage coach Paul Riley noted that after his team’s loss.
“They’ve changed their philosophy completely from two years ago when they were the artists and trying to play out of the back all the time, but they’re certainly not that; they’re very direct,” Riley said. “They don’t play any football whatsoever.”
But despite Riley’s complaints, playing direct often pays off, especially when a team fields two of the best attackers in the world — Sydney Leroux and Alex Morgan.
Any team with Leroux and Morgan on its roster is going to focus a hefty chunk of its offensive possession on over-the-top play. Their combination of speed, timing and ruthless finishing thrives in situations where they can slip behind the backline for quick goals.
This was always an aspect of the Pride’s game plan in 2019, but it was often overshadowed by the team’s struggles to play fluidly out of the back. In 2019, the Pride allowed a wealth of giveaway goals off sloppy and mistimed passes from the backline and ultimately gave up more than 50 goals.
The Pride’s shape and system appear different for several reasons. First, the team is actually able to play out of the back. The current defense is less prone to mistakes, and the addition of midfielders such as Meggie Dougherty Howard and Gunny Jónsdóttir improved the connection between the two lines.
Less time spent clearing and defending means more time on the ball. It also means the Pride are spending more of their on-ball possession in the middle third of the field rather than pinned back in their own box.
And this, in turn, allows the Pride to institute a more consistent high press, led by the speed and aggression of Leroux, Marta and Morgan. Leroux’s opening goal came off this high press, and several of the Pride’s best chances of the night came after an attacking player plucked a pass in the press and immediately sent a ball up to the forward line.
The Pride are still spending more time than they’d like on the defensive end, although this is a common problem for most NWSL teams when they travel to North Carolina. But the team’s increased directness isn’t just a tactical change; it’s a reflection of improvements across the field.
Young defenders continue growth
Rookies Phoebe McClernon and Courtney Petersen started both of the regular-season matches as the left-side pairing on the backline, and their growth is a continuous bright spot for the Pride.
Both players are learning under the mentorship of Ali Krieger and Ali Riley, the veteran pair who hold down the right side of the defense.
McClernon has more than earned the starting left centerback position after playing every match of 2021 in the position. She’s grown in her timing of tackles both in and outside the box, cleaning taking balls of top attackers such as Debinha and McDonald.
Petersen is still smoothing out her timing after playing less of the Challenge Cup than McClernon, but her aggression up the left flank bolstered both sides of the Pride’s game.
There’s still room for improvement. The Pride got lucky in the first half when Debinha missed a wide-open chance on the open backside of the goal, and again when Lynn Williams sent a header off the frame in the second half. McLeod still needed to make four saves on the night to protect the win.
But the growth of McClernon and Petersen alongside their veteran counterparts reflects promise for the Pride’s future, and their partnership will be key as the Olympics near.